CSI Cambridge: history of political thought as detective-work

UPDATE: This article has now been published, in History of European Ideas 41:8 (2015), pp. 1178-94.

My paper ‘History of Political Thought as Detective-Work’ has now been accepted by History of European Ideas. The paper uses a detective analogy (following Collingwood and others) to give practical principles for textual interpreters on how to draw plausible inferences from incomplete, ambiguous evidence about what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote.

david-caruso-csi-miamiI used a different analogy in the versions of this paper I gave at York, Reading, Durham, KCL and Kent in 2010-2012, but that analogy was too controversial to get published, and I only make it explicit in a forthcoming chapter in Winfried Schröder, ed., Reading Between The Lines (de Gruyter, forthcoming). But those who read between the lines of the current paper will see what I’m really arguing. For what it’s worth, the different analogy was also present in the original version of my ‘Anti-Strauss’ article, but the referees rightly made me take it out. Still, it’s there implicitly. My critique of Strauss has always been a vehicle for far more important ideas.

Here is the abstract of my History of European Ideas paper:

This paper offers practical guidance for empirical interpretation in the history of political thought, especially uncovering what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote. I thus seek to fill a small but significant hole in our rather abstract methodological literature. To counter this abstraction, I draw not only on methodological theorising but also on actual practice – and on detective-work, a fruitful analogy. The detective analogy seeks to capture the intuition that we can potentially find right answers but must handle fragmentary evidence that different people can plausibly read in different ways. Placing the focus on evidence, and on combining different types of evidence, suggests that orthodox categories like ‘contextualist’ and ‘Marxist’ too often accentuate differences between scholars. This paper instead highlights core principles that unite us – ideas that underpin good textual interpretation across all ‘schools of thought’.

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How to do history of political thought

Interpreting textsHere is my draft chapter on how to interpret texts, for a book on methods in political theory that I’m editing for Cambridge University Press.

I’m keen for comments – however critical! The only problem is that I need comments by August 1st if possible, as I’m submitting the book manuscript on September 1st. Sorry for the crazy deadline.

I’m particularly keen to hear from current graduate students (MA or PhD), or advanced undergraduates, as that is who the chapter is aimed at.

Even if you’ve never met me, I’d love your criticisms and suggestions! Please download the article and email me at Adrian.Blau [at] kcl.ac.uk – thanks!

Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 3: Quentin Skinner

Quentin Skinner was, and is, one of my intellectual heroes. He was, and is, the most vital speaker I have heard. He has an energy that makes the ideas and the people come alive. His written words have a similar effect. But it was as a lecturer that he inspired me; indeed, I didn’t read much that he wrote until I was a graduate student.

I owe Skinner a particular debt because he inspired me at a time when I was already losing my new-found love of history of political thought. I had just switched subjects, to study politics. My holiday reading list included Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics, which I found about as inspiring as A Short History of Essex, and John Dunn’s Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future, which has to be about the worst introduction to political theory that undergraduates have ever been encouraged to read. (It’s not that it’s bad: it’s not bad, actually. But it’s not that good, in my opinion, and it’s not well written, in anyone’s opinion, and I don’t think that it teaches you much about what political theory is or how to do it.)

Nor was I very inspired by most of the lectures I then sat through (and often, slept through), or the teaching I had for my Plato to Locke course. Then Skinner’s lectures started. He seemed to be one of the few History lecturers who put effort into his lectures. Some of his colleagues spent 8 or 16 lectures meandering through a book they had written, but Skinner knew what he wanted to say, his lectures had energy and direction, and the intellectual content was superb.

Quentin Skinner

Quentin Skinner

Skinner is equally well known for his methodological writings; much of my own ongoing methodological work involves supplementing and amending Skinner’s. But strikingly, his lectures were largely implicit about method. I think all he said, too modestly, was that there was a historical style of analysing political texts with which his name was associated.

Nonetheless, his method influenced me significantly: I simply imbibed this approach to history of political thought from his lectures and those of his colleagues.

I’ve never really understood the bile that some people have for Skinner, and I believe I have good intellectual reasons for defending him; but I am well aware that I am emotionally biased, because like many people, Quentin Skinner inspired me to do what I now do.

Here’s an hour-long lecture of Skinner on Machiavelli’s Prince. Enjoy!